CHICAGO | The once-dominant Los Angeles Lakers visited snowy Chicago on Monday as a running punch line, not an NBA contender.
The Lakers are SO bad, Jack Nicholson became a Clippers fan.
The Lakers are SO bad, they changed the Staples Center to a Staples store.
The Lakers are SO bad, players leave in the fourth quarter of home games to beat traffic.
You expect jokes and putdowns when you're 16-25 (8-14 on the road), own the 12th-worst record in the 15-team Western Conference, and have stars Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Lake, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry out with long-term injuries.
The Lakers are on pace to miss the playoffs for only the fifth time in franchise history since moving to L.A. from Minneapolis in 1960-61.
Enter the nightclub comics, scathing web sites and blistering emails to team executives.
"If we win, we shut them up. That's the only choice we have," said veteran Pau Gasol.
The Lakers had lost 12 of their last 15 games prior to facing Chicago, which continued its struggle to reach .500 for the first time since Nov. 27.
This wasn't the classic matchup of superstar guards — Derrick Rose versus Kobe Bryant — that TNT had been hoping for, so they dropped the game weeks ago.
Bryant (torn achilles, fractured left knee) typifies one of the Lakers' most frustrating seasons in recent memory, not that the franchise has been inundated with sympathy cards since it went south in the standings.
Nobody roots for the smack-talking giant outside his hometown, only for the underdog holding that stone and slingshot.
Blame the Lakers' 11 NBA titles and their Hollywood Who's Who seated at courtside every home game.
Surprisingly, this wasn't a playoff contender even with Bryant in the lineup.
Try this for a starting five: Gasol, Ryan Kelly, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson and Kendall Marshall. If that sends a shiver down your spine, you probably left the front door open.
"It's been tough on the fans, on everybody," coach Mike D'Antoni said before Monday's tip. "The sport's good. They get frustrated like anybody else but we're trying to plug along, do the best we can, and at least get in position to have some (playoff) hope.
"We're not there yet."
That leads us back to Kobe Bryant. Can he lead this very average team into the postseason if and when he returns?
"As a player, I didn't know how my teammates would respond the first time I came back (Dec. 8). This is a change in direction (again)," said Bryant, who is traveling with the Lakers.
"But I had a pretty good feel for the game, getting back to doing what I normally could do. So I feel pretty confident about it."
Bryant averaged only 13.8 points in the six games he played, L.A. losing four of them, before going down again Dec. 17 against Memphis.
"The only thing I can afford to consider is getting better, getting strong," Bryant said. "I can't allow myself to think any other way.
"To think about sitting out (the season), your motivation is all wrong. I refuse to think that way."
Bryant hopes to return before March. But unless he's suddenly wearing a red cape and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, forget the playoffs.
Like I said, the Lakers are SO bad ...